Nikon F4 – Nikon’s last conventional Pro camera

The F4 was the last Nikon camera to enjoy (for a few years) an undisputed supremacy on the professional market. Successor of a long line of modular pro cameras, the F4 uniquely combines conventional ergonomics with a modern feature set.

A typical Nikon pro-camera

Now that we have discussed in detail the F4’s auto-focus system, let’s spend a few cycles on what makes it such a great camera.

Nikon_F4-7464
Interchangeable viewfinder, knobs and safety locks everywhere – a typical Nikon F camera.

The F4 is a true Nikon F – a modular body with an extremely high built quality, compatible to some degree with almost anything Nikon has ever made. With 24 different focusing screens, 4 models of viewfinders, 3 grips and 3 backs to choose from, it can be customized to almost any specific requirement.

Nikon_F4-7501
Nikon F4 with MB-21 grip. With the prism removed, the camera still operates (but only with spot metering)

It has been designed so that it will never let the photographer (or an  unexperienced assistant) waste a roll of film or botch a shooting session:

  • there is no menu, just knobs and switches – just look at the camera, and you visualize how it’s set up.
  • there are locks on the film door, on the shutter speed knob, on the ISO dial, on the exposure mode switch, on the on/off switch, and a flashing red LED will warn the photographer if the film is not properly loaded in the camera.
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Nikon F4. The MB-20 grip holds 4 standard 1.5 volt AA batteries. With the MB-20 grip, the camera is significantly more compact.

It oozes build quality: it’s a full metal precision instrument.

Another Rosetta Stone

Nikon has been using the same bayonet lens mount since 1959, but even if its basic dimensions have stayed the same, it has evolved to the point where old lenses could damage some of the recent bodies, and recent lenses can’t be reasonably used on most of the older cameras.

Nikon_F4-7500
Nikon F4. The MB-21 grip is composed of a base holding two AA batteries (right) and a hand grip holding the 4 AA batteries (left)

In the Nikon line-up, the “pro” or “advanced-enthusiast” cameras are compatible with more generations of the Nikon F bayonet than the amateur oriented models, and a few bodies are exceptionally good at bridging the generations. The F4 is one of those, and deserves its “Rosetta Stone” nickname.

High level, the F4 can work with almost any manual focus lens (pre-AI made from 1959 to 1976, adapted AI, AI and AI-S), thanks to an array of pins inherited from the Nikon FA (like the FA, it offers matrix metering with manual focus lenses). Old ultra-wide angle lenses protruding deep in the mirror chamber can also be accommodated: the mirror can be locked in the raised position. And it has the electrical contacts needed by more recent AF lenses.

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Nikon F4 – clockwise from top, on the mount’s flange : the meter coupling lever used for aperture indexing, the lens type signal pin, the lens release pin, the auto-focus shaft. On the inside of the exposure chamber: the electrical contacts  used by AF lenses (top), the focal length indexing pin (right) and the aperture stop-down lever (left).

Of course, not all the exposure modes are available (pre-AI lenses have to be used  stopped down, and only the Aperture Priority and Manual mode work with AI and AI-S lenses – but with the benefit of matrix metering and focus assist).

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Nikon F4 – the grey tab on the left is the meter coupling lever used to transmit the selected aperture to the body with AI, AI-S and AF lenses; before mounting pre-AI lenses on the camera, press the shiny button to lift the meter coupling lever.

With Nikon’s AF and AF-D lenses, everything works. AF-S (motorized) lenses work also, as long as they still have an aperture ring. The AF-S G lenses (deprived of an aperture ring) can only be used in Shutter Priority and Program Mode.

Only very recent lenses (the AF-P with an electronic control of the lens’ iris) can’t be used at all.

Reliability

The F4 is not known for any major issue (Nikon was wise enough to abstain from using magnets as a substitute to springs in the shutter mechanism or soldering capacitors or batteries to the mother board).

In the eighties, LCD displays were a new thing, and vendors were often adding warnings or disclaimers in their user manuals, because they did not know how LCDs would age. In fact, they seem to have aged pretty well with most cameras, with the exception of the Nikon F4.

IMG_1612
Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. The top LCD shown here is damaged (a common flaw of the F4).

The camera has two different LCDs: a small one at the top left of the viewfinder, showing the number of remaining images on the film roll, and a large display at the bottom of the viewfinder, showing to usual exposure parameters (metering mode, shutter speed, aperture …).

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Nikon F4 – with the viewfinder removed, the small LCD display on the top left is part of the body; the large LCD showing the exposure parameters is part of the DP-20 viewfinder.

The top LCD is in fact part of the body of the camera itself (a small prism redirects its image so that it’s visible at the top of the viewfinder’s focusing screen). On the camera I purchased, it looks like it was covered by a dark green spider web. It’s distracting, but not a big issue, as the information displayed is not essential (I’m considering covering the LCD with a piece of black tape).

The issue of the “leaking” main LCD is more serious. In the most acute cases, the LCD display at the bottom of the viewfinder is all black (as if it was covered with black ink), and totally useless. This LCD is part of the viewfinder. Replacement DP-20 viewfinders are easy to find, in the $50.00 to $70.00 range on eBay, but even copies deemed “perfect” show small signs of leakage at the edge of the LCD. I don’t know whether they’re now as bad as they will ever be, or if they will further degrade over time.

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Nikon F4 -through the DP20 viewfinder. My second DP-20 viewfinder – on the first one the LCD leakage was very pronounced. Here, only a tiny corner at the lower left  corner of the LCD has  started leaking.

How does it compare?

The F4 is unique – no other camera offered such a combination of modern features (matrix metering, multiple automatic exposure modes, auto-focus) in a somehow conventional modular body.

In the Nikon family, the F3 is a much simpler camera. Its High eye Point (HP) viewfinder is better suited to manual focus operations  (longer eye point and higher magnification) – it is easier on the eyes, but gives very little information (the shutter speed selected by the camera in Auto exposure mode, augmented by a + or a – in semi-auto mode). If you only intent to operate in manual focus mode, don’t need spot or matrix metering and don’t mind the weight (the F3 is a surprisingly compact camera, but it’s very dense), the Nikon F3 is very good pick.

The N90s (F90x) is not a modular camera, it is not as solidly built and is more plasticky (with a peeling film door). It is designed around a modal interface (press a button, turn the control wheel to change shooting parameters). In terms of everyday performance, it’s more capable than the F4. Its viewfinder shows a larger image (0.78x), its auto-focus is much faster, and although  large and heavy in its own right, it’s not as voluminous as the F4. But because it does everything so well (in the background) and only communicates with the photographer through LCD screens, it feels more robotic than the F4.

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A great combination, if it was not for the size and the weight (I did not have any holster bag large enough to carry it).

When the F4 was launched in 1988, Canon was starting its transition to the new EOS camera generation. They still had two manual focus professional models – the modular and very conventional New-F1 of 1981, and the T90, with modern ergonomics but without matrix metering.  Canon would not offer a real pro auto-focus camera until the EOS-1 of 1989 and they had no trans-standard constant aperture USM zooms until 1993, leaving a few years of reprieve to Nikon. The EOS-1 had a fixed viewfinder, but could be fitted with battery grips of various capacity. Nikon’s F4 successor, the F5, followed Canon’s example: modern ergonomics, and less modularity than its predecessor (the battery grip was integrated to the body and could not be changed). In that sense, the F4 is the last really conventional and modular 35mm SLR.

How much

The F4 is not a rare camera. It may have struggled at the end of its sales career, but during its first three years, it sold in large quantities (270,000 copies sold between 1988 and 1990).

Fully functional cameras with some issues (cosmetic or leaky LCD display in the viewfinder) sell for a bit more than $100.00, with faultless copies fetching twice as much.

To a large extend, the value of the F4 is related to the accessories it’s coming with – non standard grips, viewfinders and focusing screens were not sold in large quantities (and sometimes only in select geographies), and sold separately, they can be worth more than the camera itself.

As a conclusion

The F4’s mission #1 was to never let a photographer miss a picture inadvertently – all settings are visible on clearly identified knobs and dials, there are locks everywhere, and even a warning LED if the film is not properly attached to receiving spool – it’s the play-it-safe tool for a pro who does not want the embarrassment (and the potential loss of revenue) of failing to deliver.

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Nikon F4 with the MB-20 grip and a small sliding aperture zoom. The MB-20 grip is smaller than the MB-21, and was standard equipment in most of the world. In the US, the MB-21 was standard (I know, everything has to be bigger over here).

Technically, if offers what was the best in 1988 and still is pretty good now (large viewfinder, 1/8000 shutter, OTF Flash with 1/250 sync, matrix and spot metering). Its auto-focus system, while not as capable as a modern camera’s, is still good enough for any scene where you have the time to focus first and then re-frame.

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Nikon F4 with MB-21 grip: it’s even larger than a recent D700/D800 body.

Like the F3, it’s a camera that grows on you. I was not crazy about it  when I started using it (its size, its weight and a narrow auto-focus zone were a serious let down), but I rapidly came to appreciate it. It does not feel like a computer or a robot taking all the decisions for you (like a N90S would),  it’s still an analog camera with conventional commands, with an auto-focus system that forces you to pay attention to what you’re doing.

It will give its best results if you have the deliberate approach that makes shooting with conventional film cameras so rewarding.


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Horace – Nikon F4 – Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – during this photo session, I used the Tokina at full aperture all the time,
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Max – Nikon F4 – Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – getting a good exposure of a black dog with brown eyes is not easy – the F4 got it right (I did not have to correct the exposure in Lightroom)

 


The four Tokina 28-70 AF lenses and their Angenieux roots

It is well known that Angenieux – before retreating to less cost sensitive markets like the movie industry and the military – made a final attempt to secure a place in the consumer market, with a now legendary Angenieux 28-70 F/2.6 AF zoom, launched in 1990. In 1994, the company was sold to its current owner, Thales, and left the consumer market for good.  Tokina launched its own 28-70 f/2.6-2.8 soon after, and is widely rumored to have purchased the blue prints of the lens from Angenieux.

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Tokina 28-70 AT-X PRO II – this one is a Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) model – export models were marketed as f/2.6-2.8 lenses

But in France, there are collectors who believe that Tokina had played a role in the design and the manufacturing of the Angenieux 28-70 lens. For them, Tokina did not have to buy the blue-prints, because the Angenieux lens was itself the result of a cooperation between Angenieux and the Japanese optics company.

Angenieux 28-70 f:2.6 AF
The Angenieux lens (Minolta A mount) I had bought in 1991. I sold it in 2005 after I had come to the (wrong) conclusion that Konica-Minolta and the A mount would not survive the transition to digital – I had not anticipated Sony’s purchase of K-M’s photography business.

After all, Angenieux had no prior experience with auto-focus lenses, and may have seen a cooperation with Tokina as a way to accelerate the product development and reduce the costs.

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Token 28-70 AT-X PRO II – the focusing ring can be pulled to switch to manual focusing (it’s a Tokina feature)
Angenieux 28-70 f:2.6 AF
The Angenieux lens: two large rings – one for zooming, one for focus. The layout of the Tokinas is similar. Only the Nikon version of the lens has an aperture ring.

How similar are the various Tokina AF 28-70 lenses to the original Angenieux AF 28-70 F/2.6?

Just looking at the characteristics, the 28-70 f/2.8 lenses can be grouped in 3 generations:

  • 1988 – 1994 – the 28-70 F/2.8 AT-X (the non-PRO model) predates the Angenieux by two years. The optical groups share a similar high level design: 16 elements organized in 12 groups. Apart from that, the Tokina and the Angenieux look very different: the Angenieux carries the brand’s very distinctive design language, and is beefed up in every dimension. It’s longer, wider and heavier. The AT-X requires 72mm filters. The Angenieux and all the other Tokina 28-70mm F/2.8 lenses need 77mm filters.
    tokina_28-70_source_KEH
    Tokina 28-70 AT-X f/2.8 from 1988 – Courtesy KEH

     

  • 1994 – 1999 – the AT-X PRO 28-70 AF/2.6-2.8 (and PRO II) lenses are the ones whose main specifications are the closest to the Angenieux. The main difference between the Tokina and the Angenieux comes from the ability to disengage the auto-focus on the lens itself on the Tokina (by pulling the focusing ring): Angenieux never had such a feature.
    On the Japanese Domestic Market, the Tokina were sold as F/2.8 lenses (no reference to F/2.6), but in the rest of the world they were marketed as f/2.6-2.8 zooms. [The Angenieux was sold as a F/2.6 constant aperture lens – in theory, a lens opening at f/2.6 lets 10% more light go through than a lens opening at f/2.8 – the difference is largely symbolic.]

    Tokina_28_70_AT-X Prod
    Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO II – Note the 77mm filter, the bayonet hood mount typical of the PRO II, and the f/2.8 marking typical of a JDM model. (source: Youtube)

    The PRO II of 1997 was a significant upgrade over the first AT-X Pro, and benefited from one “High Refraction Low Dispersion” (HLD) optical element, from a better multi-layer coating, and from a faster focusing mechanism. The lettering on the lens’ body still reads AT-X PRO. The easiest way to recognize the PRO II: a bayonet hood mount that replaces the screw-on mount of the previous Angenieux and Tokina models.

     

  • 2000-2002 – the 28-80 AT-X “PRO” of Year 2000, and the “Special Value” AT-X PRO SV 28-70 AF F/2.8 of 2002 are clearly 2 variants of the same model, but seem to have little in common with the earlier AT-X PRO models and with the Angenieux: significantly different dimensions, different minimum focusing distance, two aspheric optical elements, internal focusing.

    tokina 28-70 pro sv
    Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AT-X PRO SV (Source: MIST722 on eBay)
Angenieux Tokina AT-X 270 Tokina AT-X Pro
AF 28-70 F/2.6 AF 28-70 F/2.8 AF 28-70 F/2.6-2.8
Year 1990-1994 1988-1994 1994-1997
Elements / groups 16/12 16/12 16/12
Filter diameter 77mm 72mm 77mm
Weight 660g 600g 760g
Length 111mm 90mm 109.5
Width 78.5mm 70mm 79.5mm
closest focusing dist. 65cm 70cm 70cm
Lens hood screw-on mount screw-on mount screw-on mount
Tokina AT-X Pro II Tokina AT-X Pro 280 Tokina AT-X 287 PRO SV
AF 28-70 F/2.6-2.8 AF 28-80 IF f/2.8 AF 28-70 IF f/2.8
Year 1997-1999 2000- 2002-
Elements / groups 16/12
Special glass elements 1 HLD 2 Aspheric, 1 SD 2 Aspheric, 1 SD
Filter diameter 77mm 77mm 77mm
Weight 772g 810g 715g
Length 109.5mm 120mm 108.5mm
Width 79.5mm 84mm 84mm
closest focusing dist. 70cm 50mm 50mm
Lens hood bayonet mount bayonet mount bayonet mount

Using one of those lenses today?

With the full frame digital cameras becoming more affordable, there has been a renewed interest in the Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 AF lens family in the recent years. They’re a far cheaper alternative to current luminous trans-standard zooms from the big camera makers.  What do you lose if you use a lens from the nineties?

  • compatibility: the lenses were designed for 35mm film, and are only a good fit with full frame digital cameras (on cameras with an APS-C sensor, their angle of view is similar to a 43-105mm zoom on a 35mm camera). The Angenieux was available in Nikon AF and Minolta AF mounts (both of the screw driver AF type), and in a Canon EF variant, with an integrated auto-focus motor. In addition to the mounts of the big three, the Tokina models were also available for the Pentax KAF mount.
    As far as I know, Canon and Minolta-Konica-Sony have never altered the bayonet mount of their auto-focus lenses, and Sony Alpha bodies still have the motor required to focus automatically with a “screw–drive” lens: any of the Tokina AF lenses should work on a Canon or Sony camera. The case of Nikon is more complex. All those lenses behave like Nikkor AF lenses of the first generation, which means they won’t auto-focus on Nikon bodies deprived of an auto-focus motor, such as the D3x00 and D5x00 series, as well as the new D7500 (there should be no issue with Nikon’s full frame  cameras, as they still have an in-board auto-focus motor).
  • Performance of the 28-70 f/2.8 lenses compared to modern offerings

    • It’s difficult to assess – few of the tests conducted by paper magazines in the nineties are still available today (most of the magazines are gone, and the online archives of the survivors don’t often go that far back). Shutterbug is a good source of information: they’re one of the few surviving US photography magazines, and the articles they published in the nineties are still available on their Web site.
    • Tests were made with film cameras, in reference to equivalent zooms from Canon, Minolta and Nikon. A few tests published on the Web 10 years ago were conducted with digital cameras with a smaller APS-C sensor and a lower resolution, and are of little value with today’s high resolution full frame sensor cameras.
    • on the forums, as usual, there is a lot of hear say, wishful thinking and self re-inforcing opinions, but little in terms of facts or serious tests.

That being said,

  • there is not much information about the original 28-70 AT-X (non-PRO) of 1988 on the Web. It got a good review from Ken Rockwell in 2011 (obviously as a “used” lens option for cost conscious buyers). He liked its price, its relatively small size and weight, and its sharpness at the center, even at full aperture. In his opinion, you needed to stop down to f/8 to get to excellent levels in the edges or at 70mm.
  • the 28-70 AT-X PRO 2.6-2.8 (the so-called “Angenieux” design) generally got great reviews. Reviewers were impressed by its built quality and its sharpness (with a few restrictions): the review of Peter Burian on Shutterbug is very positive (it was originally published in 1999, and Peter was shooting with film). He rates the image quality as exceptional in the center of the frame at full aperture, and excellent even in the edges at F/4 and above, with a sweet spot in the 35 to 60mm range between F/5.6 and F/11 where it’s as good as a prime lens.
    Maybe because he tested the lens more recently on a digital full frame camera (a Nikon D700), Eric Tastad in ERPhotoReview is not as enthusiastic. In his opinion, the lens is very sharp in the center at 28mm and full aperture, but needs to be stopped down to F/5.6 to reach excellent levels across the frame and above 50mm. And it will remain relatively weak at 70mm even when stopped down. To summarize, you could say that in his opinion the lens should have been sold as a 28-60 f/2.8-4.

    tokina-7420
    The 28-70 AT-X PRO II – Just the right size for a full frame digital body.
  • the 28-80 AT-X Pro F/2.8 IF – there does not seem to be a definite opinion about this lens – according to some of the reviews, it’s inferior to its predecessors, while others (Peter Burian at Shutterbug in particular) say it’s the best of the bunch (which would be logical considering it’s more recent, and that it does not seem to have been designed with aggressive cost cutting in mind). The fact is that it had much serious competitors than its predecessors: lenses such as the more recent Nikon 28-70 F/2.8 AF-S are significantly better at full aperture, and focus faster and silently thanks to an integrated auto-focus motor.
  • the 28-70 Pro SV is a budget version of the 28-80, and is generally considered inferior in performance to the 28-70 AT-X Pro II.

Price:
The Angenieux is a collector’s item. Its value on the market has little to do with its usage value. It can not be found for less than $1,500 – much higher than more recent Canon, Minolta or Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 lenses.

The price of the Tokina lenses does not necessarily reflect the reputation (good or bad) of a specific 28-70 model – poorly regarded AT-X PRO SV lenses are often proposed for prices as high as the AT-X PRO II ($250 to $275 for perfect copies). The AT-X Pro 28-80 tends to be even more expensive (up to $400.00), but at this price it’s getting dangerously close to the cheapest lenses f/2.8 zooms of the Big Three (the Nikon 28-70 f/2.8 AF-S zoom can be found at $500.00).

More about the Tokina 28-70 AT-x PRO II f/2.6-2.8 in a few weeks…

Test_Tokina-6214
Chastain Park, Atlanta. Nikon D700. Tokina 28-70 – Shot at f/6.3 and 40mm. A first attempt to assess the performance of the lens (according to tests published in the past, 40mm and f/6.3 are right in the sweet spot of the lens).

Reviews by paper Magazines:

Shutterbug (1999): https://www.shutterbug.com/content/tokina-x-af-28-70mm-f26-28-amp-x-af-80-200mm-f28-sd-lenses

Shutterbug (2000):https://www.shutterbug.com/content/new-tokina-x-28-80mm-f28sd-af-pro

Tests by Web sites:

Ken Rockwell (the Tokina 28/70 AT-X from 1988): https://kenrockwell.com/tokina/28-70mm-f28.htm

Opticallimits.com (formerly known as photozone.de) : the AT-X Pro II from 1997 review in photozone.de

erphotoreview (AT-X Pro II from 1997): http://erphotoreview.com/wordpress/?p=987&page=5

Tokina’s archived Web pages:

Tokina’s web page: AT-X PRO 28-80 f/2.8

Tokina’s Web page: AT-X 28-70 F/2.8 SV

To learn everything about Angenieux, there is no better source than a French writer and collector named Patrice-Herve Pont, who is the author of an extensive history of the French optics company (Patrice Herve Pont : Angenieux, made in Saint-Heand (Loire, France).

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Angenieux: made in Saint-Heand, Loire, France – Editions du Pecari

Unfortunately, his book (written in French) was never translated and seems currently unavailable (I ordered it from Eyrolles a while ago and they’re still trying to fulfill my order).

Angenieux is primarily serving the movie industry now. One of their corporate publications: http://fdtimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/FDTimes-Angenieux-Special-Aug2013.pdf


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Max, French Bulldog. Nikon D700. Tokina 28-70 f/2.8 (picture taken with the lens set at f/2.8 and 70mm, where the lens is supposed to be at its weakest).